The suffocation of safe isolation | 2019 | Studio detail

August 2019. I receive a snapshot from the island of Stomorska in Croatia, yachts bobbing about. The photograph is of Chris Soal. He sports his customary topknot, black slip- slops, navy blue and teal shorts, and a gelato. I cannot quite tell the flavour; he’s gobbled most of it. Wild strawberry The teal pattern in his shorts, more fern than floral, sits well against the green bench against which he coolly reclines. His body, angled to his left, forms the upright of a disjointed cross. He is in the blissful grip of a sugar-rush, a millennial at play, sleek as a yacht adrift on the Adriatic.

Composing an essay on the artist three months later, I suggest the photograph be included in the catalogue, to no avail. It’s a pity. As the phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau- Ponty noted: ‘I am all that I see, I am an intersubjective field, not despite my body and historical situation, but, on the contrary, by being this body and this situation, and through them, all the rest.’1 The photograph of Soal communicates this vision, the truth of the man, or rather, my understanding thereof. A single word emerges from that body, that situation, otium: calm, contemplation, endeavour. The body is a beam, solid and glowing. Its intersection with the wrought iron/ wooden bench suggests both a holy cross and an ‘intersubjective field’—the body and the world, the bod in the world. The Greek letter chi—a crossed intertwining shape (denoting the word ‘chiasm’ or ‘chiasmus’)—comes to mind. Biologically, it is the crossing of ligaments or nerves. Rhetorically, the point where competing meanings converge. ‘X marks the spot.’ What we forget is that an X not only marks a sighting, but cancels it.  If Soal is palpably present, he is also not. This is not only because photographs lie, but because the artist’s being— the record of his presence, me looking at it—is never fully present. Nothing ever is, not even Christ on the cross. Everything merges, everything bleeds. My vision of Soal— composed, becalmed, one with his gelato—is an idea. Intimation is what we do. This is Merleau-Ponty’s point ‘This body . . . this situation . . . all the rest . . .’ We know the world because we are part and parcel of it. I see rigour and pleasure; being as a liquid continuance and fold. Soal’s day usually begins at 4am. Meditation, a workout, reading, note- taking, prep, then breakfast at 6am (with his family of six), followed by eight hours in the studio. In that photograph, however, he is on an island far from his landlocked home and ‘gritty muse,’ Johannesburg, taking time out before taking up a residency in Rome, hosted by Montoro 12.2

Soal wears many hats: ‘Engineer, businessman, manager, public-relations personnel, researcher, writer, and performer, amongst others.’3 The word ‘artist’ does not appear in this list. He does, however, believe that ‘the accumulated body of work as an artist will show as a self-portrait of sorts.’4 His reluctance to cling to a defining model (artist) does not stem from his varied practice, but his vision of life, what it amounts to. He is as enthralled by the sciences, sport, and psychology. His refusal to define who and what he is owes much to phenomenology, which, as Colin Wilson notes, is not a philosophy but ‘a philosophical method, a tool . . . an adjustable spanner.’5 If life is a method and a function, ever adjustable, then it is only ever an experiment. Merleau- Ponty concurs. ‘Phenomenology is not the reflection o a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being.’6 Being—like truth or art—is not an essence but an aspiration. To create, ‘we must . . . rediscover, after the natural world, the social world, not as an object or sum of objects, but as a permanent field or dimension of existence.’7

With his adjustable spanner and ingenuity, Soal reveals what
is in plain sight yet unseen—life’s bounteous gift. It can be
found in a beer bottle cap, glimmering like gold on a dusty
street, or in the metal sheets from which bottle caps are
punched (which, for Soal, echo an iconic Shweshwe pattern). Whether made with a single material or many, one must experience a work before reflection can occur. If the body’s strength, skill, imagination, and daring are central to the
making, it is because there can be no world, no truth, without
it. The body is not a thing alone, separable and inviolable. It
is always connected to others, to history, and to time. ‘The
body is our general medium for having a world,’ Merleau-
Ponty reminds us.8 Other crossings come to mind: anvil and hammer; warp and weft.

The titles of three artworks—Orbits of relating (2018) (pictured p. 51), A delight in knowing and being known (2018), and Little moments that remind us of ourselves (2018)— convey connectedness and conviviality, without which life
for Soal would have no meaning, art no purpose. Drawn
from books and conversations, anything that ‘catches’ the ear, Soal’s titles are meticulously recorded in anticipation
of a work. It is only when a work is complete that he opens his notebook to find a written complement. The dialogue between words and things is one of many intersections. He is not interested in naming his artworks but communicating their moment, which we the audience, comprised of our
own moments, body forth. It is through his audience that the dialogue continues. ‘You have to be as conscious as possible of the ripples your gestures will create,’ says Soal. ‘Small gestures done in the privacy of one’s studio can have a major impact in the world.’9 This is no vainglorious aside. In Soal’s world, everything connects; everything has a consequence.

Art runs, ripples, coalesces. It is both husk and kernel. If everything carries consequence, it must contain the root of his method and philosophy—love and wisdom—above all else.

The title of one of his earliest works, To the one who contemplates, life is a distraction (2017), sums up the artist’s inclination. The work came to him while making frames out of Supawood. While cutting it, he noticed that the blade created circular burn marks. ‘Playing with the offcuts’ followed. His preoccupation with everything discarded, leftover, became idiomatic. ‘Something came from something else, something that I didn’t expect,’ Soal recalls. ‘This is why the role of
the artist is a sensitive one.’10 Soal may redeploy matter,
but he does not alter its essence. Both the contiguous and singular are important. He works with ‘common, everyday materials without altering their individual form.’11 It is when he readjusts them that they become ‘unrecognisable.’ His intention is not to provoke surprise, but to remind us of the unique relationship between all things. This is only possible when one is conscious, the body attuned. It is how we immerse ourselves and engage with the world that matters. Art is a koan. It is not produced for a specific outcome. If Soal is compelled by wondrous beauty— the circular burn
marks that a cutting blade makes—it is because all of life
contains it. Wonder and beauty reside not in the object itself
but in the one who perceives it. This view long predates phenomenology. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume
noted, ‘Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists
merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.’12

I first encountered Soal’s work at the Cape Town Art Fair in February 2019, prompting our meeting at the Turbine Art Fair in Johannesburg later that year and a dialogue which continues to this day. I mention this because I rarely befriend artists. What they make matters greatly, but I am rarely compelled to meet the artist, and am often chided for my reluctance to do so. Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Interviews (2003) dithered in my bookshelf for over a year before I gifted it to an appreciative student. Soal, however, beckoned me. Gloucester’s line in King Lear—‘I stumbled when I saw’13— conveys the intensity of the encounter. In a work made of toothpicks—a rippling field, a murmuration—a feeling ignited in the head that coursed the entirety of my body. Soal had electrified the senses, stirred the heart. I am sure this sensation is not uniquely my own. Each mind perceives a different beauty, responds to Soal’s work singularly, but a join persists. It is his ability to plumb our furthest reaches, to console us and knead our yearnings, that makes his work compelling. It did not matter that my first encounter was in
a braying marketplace. Soal laid no claim upon my heart, brokered no modeal with my mind. All I recall is a kindling. It was not the material that generated this burning sensation— tens of thousands of toothpicks held with polyurethane sealant and ripstop fabric—but the quiet reticulated emotion it carried.

The work (pictured below) is titled The sharp edge of comfort (2019). It is not only beautiful but honest. There is a settledness, a peace, in that swathe and tumble of birch toothpicks; an occurrence that seems natural, with all the marvellous twists and turns that nature, boundless and feral, allows. Soal first spotted the toothpick at a dinner table in 2017, and promptly took a photo. It seemed an unlikely source for art. A year passed before he readdressed the matter. It is now his signature, but it is what he makes of this sliver of a thing—their aggregation, weight, flux and flow, lightness, pendulousness; their quiet command—that stops audiences in their tracks. The ingenuity of his art surpasses the initial surprise on discovering that his sumptuous pelts are made of toothpicks. Gathered as a multitude, it is what they generate differently that counts. Merleau-Ponty returns. We rediscover through worlds, natural and ‘man’-made, ‘a field or dimension of existence.’

Soal does not appropriate, he transmogrifies. His visual utterances are soulful, human. His is ‘an intersubjective field’—a place of connection. Neither invasive nor distant the points at which we intersect with the work are always tremulous. One shivers in a moment of consciousness, then yields. Harmony is its abiding principle—‘the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists.’ This is the mantra of Taoism: ‘Becoming one with the unplanned rhythms of the universe called “the way” or “tao”.’14 It is the formlessnes inside of form, the difference inside of beauty, that is Soal’s mating call. We the audience connect and part, but the join remains. We resume our lives, consoled. For all its beneficent calm, Soal’s work also conveys a quietly urgent need for art’s therapeutic value. As John Armstrong and Alain de Botton remind us in Art as Therapy (2013), ‘the main point of engaging with art is to help us lead better lives. . . . To assist the individual soul in its search for consolation, self-understanding and fulfilment.’15 In a world where ‘political dissent is not so much an inalienable right as a lifestyle perk’ (as Anna Khachiyan remarks), art that clamours for attention is as meritorious as it is meretricious.16 It is not enough that art represents our ills or corrects a repressed history. Art, as an inalienable right, is non-negotiable. It cannot be traded, yet it is. Still, if Khachiyan is correct, then one must remain wary of any cynical appropriation, in the case, say, of othered identities. Humanity comes first. What of the ‘individual soul’ or the consolation which art affords? What of a ‘different beauty’?

Soal’s work is unique because it is attentive to that which is inside of us that cannot be coded, extracted, manipulated, or exploited. His art is neither agonistic nor palliative. It does not plumb hurt or broker solution. It is unconcerned with resolving our woes, be they psychological or material, spiritual or secular. There is a blithe assumption afoot in the art world that art has replaced faith, that it is a ‘religion for atheists.’17 This catchy formulation is as canny as it is deceptive. Faith in all its guises persists. If Armstron and De Botton dispute the authority of the art canon, it is because it is ‘disconnected from our inner needs . . . the result of complex systems of patronage, ideology, money and education.’18

Despite moves both genuine and unscrupulous, the
authority of the art canon remains intact. Art can no longer shirk its greater purpose—‘to commemorate, give hope,
echo and dignify suffering, rebalance and guide, assist self-knowledge and communication, expand horizons and inspire appreciation.’19 Holding fast to art’s inalienable right, Armstrong and De Botton remind us that while we possess ‘freedom of expression’—which, paradoxically, is also being eroded by our reactionary historical moment—‘the problem now is how to use that to our advantage.’ In what is doubtless their most rousing challenge, they conclude: The true purpose of art is to create a world where art is less necessary, and less exceptional; a world where the values currently found, celebrated and fetishised in concentrated doses in the cloistered halls of museums are scattered more promiscuously across the Earth. . . . The true purpose of art should be to reduce the need for it.20

Soal’s understanding of what art does (what it is for) is in
keeping with Armstrong and De Botton’s vision. The perverse transformation of an inalienable right into a ‘lifestyle perk’ is a monstrous scandal. Identity politics is not a ‘thing.’ It must not be commodified. The art world is in dire need of recovering its humanity. Whether it will is another matter. It is against the art world’s aberrancy that Soal pits his work. In this noisome, fraudulent age, he offers a condition for faith that allows for a deeply personal and private encounter, and which inspires our greater human connectedness. ‘My hope is not only to shift perception,’ says Soal, ‘but to make the act of perceiving more conscious: how we perceive shapes, how we live and engage with the world and with others around us.’21

Beauty and goodness do not reside in things, but our perceptions of them. It is our perceptual power, unhampered by opinion, that leads to insight. What Soal offers is a way of seeing in and through things, through matter. If he is a philosopher—one who understands the connection of beauty and wisdom—then he is the philosopher-as-maker. Adjustable spanner in hand, he is the artist as empath: ‘homo empathicus.’22 The title of a toothpick and Milkwood work sums up Soal’s preoccupation with the singular and plural, the individual and collective—Climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it (2018). It was Martin Buber, in 1929, who best described this intuitive desire: I imagine to myself what another man is at this very moment wishing, feeling, perceiving, thinking, and not as a detached content but in his very reality, that is, as a living process in this man. . . . The inmost growth of the self is not accomplished, as people like to suppose today, in man’s relation to himself, but in the relation between the one and the other, between men.23

This temperament informs both Soal’s engagement with others and his creative process. It is his intuitive combination of materials, his splicing of the synthetic and natural,
that affirms his touch. At no point does he see a work as ‘detached content,’ constructed and appraised at a remove. His recognition that others will see and feel the work differently is vital. His endeavours attest to ‘the inmost growth of the self.’ Art is a seeding that is profoundly generative.

Industrial debris, rebar, concrete, steel sheeting, foam board, fluorescent lighting, polyurethane, glue, raw and refined wood, copper wire, used bottle tops, woven steel, flame, ash, reclaimed stumps from the 2017 Knysna fire, are some of the materials integral to Soal’s work. They may seem random, but it is their folding of one within the other that is striking. Soal does not use materials. He embraces them. It is the significance of their embrace, the frisson his works generate, that matters. You threw sand into the wind and the wind blew it back (2018) is as much a rub as it is an affront, a reckoning with thoughtlessness, disregard, and the damage that follows. We see a landscape made of toothpicks, arable and scorched. The whimsical genuflections of an intangible force—wind—give the work its obtuse and twisted language. In Speak the truth even if your voice shakes (2018) he evokes an eerie blossoming. In the clefts of a burnt tree stump, (pictured p. 58), we find a nest of toothpicks. Bleached, dying coral springs to mind—a morbid interplay of the living and the dead; a man-made, unstoppable ecological catastrophe.

Soal pitches his work against fatality (personal, ecological, cultural). The suffocation of safe isolation (2019) (pictured p. 59) challenges our era of protectionism and the fascistic fear of difference which underpins it. In hindsight, it also challenges the merits of ‘social distancing.’ Consigned to our homes, isolation has become a virtue, yet it fails to conceal a policed—securocratic and micromanagerial—law, designed to keep us apart.
Doubtless, ‘the suffocatio of safe
isolation’ will profoundly alter human
conduct in the years to come. It will
feed and legitimate our growing
provincialism-nativism- tribalism, our
xenophobia and hatred. Biopolitics
and geopolitics are never innocent.
A vaccine for our current plague may
have been found, but what of a cure for

In the face of a creeping global fascism, Soal recognises the urgent need for empathy. This need is profoundly conveyed in Axis Mundi (2019-2021) (pictured p. 60). We see two birch logs which, at their meeting point, are filed down to two toothpicks. A void lingers between. Clasps of concrete hold the logs, but it is their ‘embrace’—tender and virtual—which is the work’s core. Art history provides us with countless instances of this poignant moment— the longing for touch and its sanctity (Michelangelo’s 1512 fresco, The Creation of Adam, is an obvious example). However, it is the darker negation of this possibility which gives the work its unsettling force. In its tremulous aspiration, a void persists, refusing the connection for which we desperately long.
Despite this negation, it is vital we recognise that a void is not the sum of a lack. Soal is not interested in unbreachable divides. If we cannot vault the void, it is because it exists in all things. It is in a void that we breathe, move, inhabit ourselves, connect with others. The void is not death; it is life. Art exists because of lack. However, it is when lack comes in the way
of art—when it becomes its occupational hazard and reason
for being— that danger looms. This harmful appropriation of
the void appears in two markedly distinct forms: topicality
and vacuity. The first disguises itself as manifest presence;
the second as a nihilistic embrace of absence. The first
enshrines ‘content’; the second its truancy. The first
champions art that appears meaningful, relevant, politically
canny; the second (a gross miscarriage of ‘art for art’s sake,’ which sought to free itself from utilitarianism, never from its consoling purpose) is now the apogee of a voided condition. Neither is satisfactory. Both inverse expressions fail to
convey that which is most vital—‘emotion . . . lyricism . . . the continual rebirth of existence.’24 This life-giving sustenance requires a ‘distinguishing trait that . . . possesses inseparably
the taste for evidence and the feeling for ambiguity.’25

Soal can convey this life-enhancing paradox because he has embraced materiality and abstraction. He does not enforce a point of view or abscond from the need to embody one. He is neither averse to topicality nor delinquent in his denial thereof. Of Johannesburg, Soal notes: it is ‘a city in tension . . . my work is often about locating oneself in that space, both as a response and a citizen.’26 It is this ability to maintain ‘tension’—to move between the palpable and obscure, the visceral and the sublime, this world and its other—that allows for his greater inalienable reach. Refusing a pre-existing truth, knowing that art is a searching always, he takes us into uncharted waters. I see him now—gelato in hand, blithely at ease, sleek yachts bobbing. Did he fly from Rijeka to Rome, catch a train, or sail across the Adriatic?

- Ashraf Jamal, Inalienable


De Botton, Alain and Armstrong, John. 2013.
Art as Therapy. London/New York: Phaidon Press.

Hume, David. 1998. ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ in David Hume: Selected Essays.
Edited by Stephen Copley and Andrew Edgar. New York: Oxford University Press.

Krznaric, Roman. 2014. Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. London/ Johannesburg: Rider Books.

McRedmond, Finn. 2020. ‘Great crisis produce great art—so where is it?’ The Irish Times (date unknown). Online.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. In Praise of
Philosophy. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

————. 1993. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics
Reader: Philosophy and Painting. Edited by Galen A. Johnson, translated by Michael B. Smith. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern Uni-versity Press.

————. 2003 [1945]. The Phenomenology of
Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. Lon-don/New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Shakespeare, William. 1609.
————. 1880. ‘Act IV, Sc. I’ in King Lear. Edited by Horace Howard Furness. Philadelphia: J.B. Lipincott & Co.

Soal, Chris. 2019. ‘Q&A with Emerging Artist Chris Soal.’ House and Leisure (18 February). Online.

Thornton, Sarah. 2008. Seven Days in the Art World. London: Granta.

Wilson, Colin. 2019 [1966]. ‘The New Picture of the Universe’ in Introduction to the New Existentialism. Milton Park and New York: Routledge.

1. Marleau-Ponty 2003, 525 | 2. Unpublished interview with Kerri van Gessuo (2020) | 3. Ibid | 4. Ibid | 5. Wilson 2019, 92 | 6. Marleau-Ponty 2003, xxiii | 7. Ibid., 421 | 8. Ibid., 169 | 9. Soal 2019 | 10. Ibid. | 11. Ibid. | 12. Hume 1998, 136–37 | 13. Shakespeare 1880, 232 | 14. Wikipedia | 15. De Botton and Armstrong 2013, 57 | 16. Anna Khachiyan in McRedmond 2020 | 17. Thornton 2008, dust jacke | 18. De Botton and Armstrong 2013, 60 | 19. Ibid., 69 | 20. Ibid., 228. | 21. Soal 2019 | 22. Krznaric 2014, xiii | 23. Buber, in Krznaric 2014, 52 | 24. Marleau-Ponty 1993, 68 | 25. Marleau-Ponty 1968, 4 | 26. Email correspondence (2020).